Why Kissinger and his Iron Mentor Kraemer Split
When Henry Kissinger spoke in Arlington Cemetery’s small white chapel on October 8th, 2003, the coffin of Fritz Kraemer, draped with the Stars and Stripes, stood in front of him. Kissinger told the 300 friends and family assembled there that he had not spoken to him for 30 years. Tragically, he was only re-united with his mentor after his death.
In the thirty years from 1943 until their split in the mid-1970s they were like father and son. After Kraemer had cut Kissinger off, effectively ending his mentorship, he simply left the room whenever Kissinger entered a reception in Washington DC. He never explained to his student why he was refusing to talk to him.
When pupils like myself or more influential old friends like Ed Rowny and Vernon Walters begged him to reconnect with Kissinger in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness—an approach compatible with Kraemer’s cherished Christian beliefs, as even Jesus Christ had forgiven his torturers—he refused to budge, sticking resolutely to his decision never to talk to Kissinger again during his lifetime. When I urged reconciliation on several occasions, citing Christian values, it almost cost me the old man’s friendship, and our relationship hung in the balance. After that we did not see each other for many months. No-one actually understood why Fritz Kraemer refused to see or speak to his star pupil. The split was tragic for both of them, even for the teacher, who always ended up talking about his erstwhile favorite disciple in almost every conversation.
Henry Kissinger made the split the main theme of his eulogy. His explanation was that “Kraemer’s values were absolute, making no concessions to human frailty, historic evolution, treating intermediate solutions as derogations from principle”. On the other hand Kissinger was “the policymaker who must build the necessary from the possible; approaching absolute values in stages, hedging against the possibility of human fallibility”.
When he was U.S. Secretary of State he praised his mentor: “Kraemer is a badly-used Rolls-Royce. He never wanted anything for himself. In a world of pragmatists, you need some Kraemers. He is like the lighthouse we all need.”
Kissinger appreciated the role played by Kraemer, who remained true to his principles. But for him policy-making had to be the art of the possible, making compromises to ensure that Nixon, his President, was re-elected and that the press reported favorably about him and foreign policy. He had to assert his authority as National Security Advisor in the battle over influence with the President against the State Department, as well as fostering relations with members of Congress. Otto von Bismarck once said about this business: “It is better not to know how sausages and laws are made.” In his book Il Principe, Machiavelli paid tribute to what he saw as the basic principle that politicians had to set aside their morals in the interests of the state—preaching the opposite of Kraemer.
When the teacher was asked about the reasons for his hard stance, Kraemer often related the following story, which was evidently the last straw. When Henry Kissinger was U.S. Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford from 1973 to 1977, he asked Fritz Kraemer to come to his office in the State Department as a matter of urgency. He drove there right away, thinking it must be about something important. He went up to the spacious office in the Secretary’s personal elevator. There, Kissinger asked Kraemer if he should resign as Secretary of State. According to Kraemer, all he was concerned about was which decision was the right one for his place in history books. Appalled that the core issue was not the affairs and needs of the country, but Henry Kissinger’s own image, Kraemer turned and walked out without saying a word, and drove home. He did not speak to him after that day, punishing his pupil by ignoring him. At first Kissinger did not notice that he had antagonized his mentor. He called him, but now the calls were not returned. Kraemer was visibly repulsed by Kissinger’s egotism and vanity. For his mantra to his pupil had always been: “Someone bent on making a career is worthless. A statesman is someone who doesn’t just pursue lofty goals for his state but is willing to sacrifice himself for it. He must be willing to sacrifice his career for the cause. The most important aspect is to pursue almost impersonal goals, to serve a cause beyond oneself.” Kraemer believed that Kissinger was turning increasingly into a careerist and opportunist, away from his ideal image of a selfless and courageous statesman. He was now bitterly disappointed because his star pupil was certainly brilliant, but would not or could not follow the path of a truly independent statesman of stature.
During one of the long evenings at his house on Fessenden Street in Washington DC, Fritz Kraemer told me:
“Henry Kissinger was always ‘flexible’. This meant he often got it wrong. An example: he once wrote about our closest ally in the Vietnam War, General Thieu, ‘He is insane’, saying that he didn’t understand the massive concessions made by the North Vietnamese at the Paris talks that Kissinger was leading at that time. That was exceptionally mean-spirited, in my opinion. For at the end of the day we Americans abandoned and betrayed Thieu. The North Vietnamese made no concessions whatsoever, and they later marched into South Vietnam with the regular North Vietnamese army and their tanks.
I thank God that I split from such people at an early stage. Personally I have nothing against Henry Kissinger. He always wanted recognition and love. Kissinger could therefore never simply follow his conscience in politics. He wasn’t capable of arrogantly fighting for a cause. Kissinger as a person was never evil, just simply un-arrogant. The politics of Kissinger was always ‘flexible’— I was always ‘absolute’. I thank God that politics didn’t force me to become open to everything, i.e. ‘being flexible’.
As far as I am concerned, arrogance does not have any negative meaning, as it is about being completely convinced that personal conviction and values are absolute.”
Kraemer was instrumental in getting Alexander Haig a position with Henry Kissinger; Haig proved himself an outstanding member of the National Security Advisor’s staff in the White House and valued both men highly. He later said: “Kraemer became profoundly disappointed on the issue of Vietnam and arms control.” He tried to get the two back together but “there’s no way because Fritz is an ideologue and a principled individual who’d never compromise on his beliefs”.
Fritz Kraemer understood in deeply human terms why his pupil was different from him, and more importantly why he was insecure. In 1945 as they stood in front of Kraemer’s parental home (“Hubertushaus”) in Diethardt in the Rhine district of Sankt Goarshausen, Kissinger said to him at one point, “If I had had this upbringing, I would have become as self-confident as you.” Kraemer explained, “I owe my own self-confidence in large part to my mother, who told me ‘Be proud, my son!’ She demanded physical courage and risk-taking of her sons.” He was the quintessential heir to the self-assured upper middle classes of the German Empire, while Kissinger was at the opposite pole, the frightened son of a teaching family from Fürth, Bavaria, refugees who felt alien and abandoned in their new home, New York. Kraemer had no need of acceptance, and was supremely self-confident from an early age; Kissinger on the other hand was an anxious and insecure adolescent who longed to be accepted and loved by everyone. So the roots of the subsequent rift lay in the different paths in life of teacher and pupil.
Kraemer’s assessment of President Nixon was as follows: “Richard Nixon, for instance, was to my mind the most intelligent president I encountered, the one most interested in foreign policy. But Nixon lacked self-confidence. He was uncomfortable around people with a more privileged background.”
Luke A. Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A & M University, explained in his 2009 essay “Ideology of Fritz Kraemer at the Heart of Wartime Policy from Vietnam to Present” that Vietnam split the conservatives in the U.S. into two groups: those who sought reconciliation with America’s adversaries—including not only North Vietnam, but also the Soviet Union and China—and those who thought weak-kneed political leaders were giving away too much to America’s opponents, including restricting military solutions in Vietnam and more generally pursuing policies of détente. After Vietnam, Henry Kissinger emerged as the prime example of the former group, while Fritz Kraemer remained the main exponent of the latter.
In the first long essay published about Fritz Kraemer in The Washington Post, March 2, 1975 Nick Thimmesch noted under the headline “The Iron Mentor of the Pentagon”: “Kraemer was actually pleased with Kissinger’s performance in the opening years of the Nixon administration … his hard line on the use of U.S. troops in the Cambodian invasion in 1970 or the mining and bombing of Haiphong in the spring of 1972.”
The split, according to Luke Nichter, occurred later during the fall of 1972, just when the Nixon administration was closest to reaching a peace agreement with North and South Vietnam. “Most importantly, the split was captured on the Nixon taping system. Before publication of The Forty Years War, no attention had been paid to a meeting that took place on October 24, 1972, yet it has all the makings of pure intrigue.”
A year earlier on September 18, 1971, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger mentioned his mentor to President Nixon in a rather surprising aside: “I have this friend, this right-wing friend in the Pentagon, I’ve shown you some memos of his—Kraemer”, he said. The epithet “right-wing” was no bad thing for Nixon, but would it not have been more appropriate to describe him as a
“strategist”? Nixon’s spontaneous response was “I like him and should meet him. Tell him I do read his stuff.”
Dr Kraemer had written a memorandum The Modern World, a Single “Strategic Theater” on September 29, 1969 to then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger who in turn gave it to President Nixon for consideration, omitting the author’s name. Kissinger wrote to Richard Nixon: “Attached is a memorandum written by an acquaintance of mine which provides a rather comprehensive assessment of the United States’ position in the world. Although I do not agree with its every last word, it does define the problem we face—the generally deteriorating strategic position of the United States in the past decade.”
The President actually read Kraemer’s analysis carefully: he made several handwritten notes and wanted it to be sent to Secretaries Rogers and Laird for their comments. One sentence Nixon was especially fond of: “The people are not very just, they forgive the victor, but always make scapegoats of their own leaders who are not victorious.” Nixon underscored this sentence. “The Dolchstosslegend (the propaganda tale of the ‘stab in the back’ of fighting troops) unfortunately can be invented in any country and at any time”, Kraemer has written.
Kraemer wrote, “It is one of truisms of our time that because of the sensational development of communications and transportation, the globe has shrunk with distances between formerly far-away countries having been reduced to mere hours of flight time. The hallmark is interdependence rather than independence among States. The whole globe has become a single theater.”
His analysis of Vietnam: “I venture the assertion that any objective analyst simply cannot help reaching the conclusion that all the indicators point—with the world focusing its attention on Vietnam—in one direction only: an ultimate pull-out, a radical reduction of military commitment, a withdrawal of US military power not simply in hotly contested Vietnam but on a worldwide scale.”
“Fritz Kraemer was placed on President Nixon’s schedule on October 24, 1972 at 11:15. Kissinger’s deputy and other pupil in the White House, General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., who remained loyal to Kraemer after the Kraemer- Kissinger split, was not permitted to attend. At the start of the meeting, White House photographer Ollie Atkins captured numerous images. They depict Nixon and Kissinger in a jocular mood, clearly enjoying themselves, while Kraemer looked grave, perhaps annoyed that the start of his meeting had been reduced to humor and grandstanding”, Nichter remarked.
Nick Thimmesch reports that Kissinger had urged Kraemer to speak in a low voice to the President but he was sitting straight in his chair, lecturing the President.
Nixon began the meeting by flattering Kraemer. “There are so few people with intellectual capabilities who aren’t hopelessly unrealistic. We call them doves, for lack of a better name for it. That’s too good of a name for it. They’re actually worse. To have an intelligent appraisal by someone who really understands great forces at work in the world … with the Soviets, China, etc., to have that kind of analysis … I appreciate it. It’s been very helpful.”
“Kraemer soon began to lay into Nixon’s and Kissinger’s strategy in Vietnam, including that crucial concessions had been made—such as not insisting on a North Vietnamese withdrawal from South Vietnam—in order to obtain a flawed peace in time for the 1972 presidential election. Kissinger and Nixon defended themselves”, wrote Nichter.
Excerpt from October 24, 1972 (mp3, 2:27, 2.3m)
Kissinger: Our difficulty, Kraemer, has been not that we have made concessions before the election. Our difficulty has been to think up demands which could protract it beyond the election because every demand we make—
Nixon: They settle.
Kissinger: They meet within twenty-four hours. So we are literally running out of proposals we can make to them.
Kraemer: Make a proposal that they should withdraw from South Vietnam.
Kissinger: We’ve made that now. We’ve made the proposal, for example, that their prisoners have to stay in South Vietnamese jails.
Nixon: Forty thousand.
Kissinger: Forty thousand political prisoners would stay in South Vietnamese jails, which we thought was unacceptable.
Kraemer: That’s interesting.
Kissinger: And they have now accepted that their cadres stay in South Vietnamese jails. Now, you know that this is not an easy thing for them to sign a document in which they release our prisoners, [they] have to release South Vietnamese military prisoners, but all [North Vietnamese] civilian prisoners stay in jail.
Kraemer: Do you perhaps think that the ceasefire is such an advantage to them for the psychological reason that they are more disciplined … ?
Nixon: I think they are fairly confident, but I think there is the other factor, which I think we must have in mind. Remember, we never want to obviously underestimate … that they have taken a hell of a beating. I mean the bombing has hurt, the mining has hurt, the attrition that has occurred in South Vietnam. I mean, when you stop to think of, not just what we have done in the North, but the 52s, those six carriers we’ve had out there, and everything. We have clobbered the bejesus out of them. I think, therefore, that they have reached a point, and it is only temporary, I agree, where in their thought there, they may have read Mao. You know, he was always willing to retreat.
Kissinger: We may have been, in fact, too successful … because we told them, for example, that all communications will be cut off on November 7th. Because the president would have to retreat to reorganize the government.
Excerpt from October 24, 1972 (mp3, 1:42, 1.6m)
Nixon: We’ve fought a pretty good fight up to this point, and we’re not caving. Because we see that it’s a very difficult war. Success or failure now, not just for the moment—because anything will look good for two or three months—but something that has a chance to survive, shall we say, for two or three years. That is very much a condition that we cannot compromise on.
Kraemer: May I formulate, say, one strategic sentence—
Kraemer:—that maybe summarizes … ?
Kraemer: If, it should prove, within a number of fronts, that we, the United States, were not able to deal with the entity North Vietnam, 31 million inhabitants, that would be, apart from everything moral, the question will arise— among friend, foe, and entrants—with whom can the United States ever deal successfully? Because this entity of 31 million, supported by the Soviets, by
China, but not by their manpower—
Kraemer:—is relatively so small that everybody from Rio de Janeiro to Copenhagen, and from Hanoi to Moscow, can draw the conclusion: obviously, the enormous American power couldn’t deal with this. Therefore, as a lawyer, I would say … since we cannot deal with Vietnam, with whom can we deal?
Nixon admitted, writes Nichter, that “Kraemer touched on far more than simply American policy towards Vietnam. ‘The whole foreign policy of the United States is on the line here’, Nixon noted. The half-hour meeting was too brief for what Kraemer had in mind. He made his disagreement known to the President, which ultimately resulted in a split with Henry Kissinger.”
Fritz Kraemer must have been pretty frustrated, for his repeated criticism was that far too little time was left for reflecting on and discussing important political issues, as in this case. His question “Since we cannot deal with Vietnam, with whom can we deal?” went right to the heart of his theory of provocative weakness. The Americans had in fact already reduced their troops to a minimum, thus leaving weak forces on the ground and passing control of the war over to South Vietnamese forces. Without American air support however they were like sitting ducks facing a hungry fox.
Henry Kissinger’s secret peace talks in Paris had begun back in 1969, with the result that wrangling behind the scenes about a U.S. withdrawal had already been going on for three years with the North Vietnamese.
As mentor and disciple went out through the corridors of the White House, Kissinger hissed at the older man, “You have ruined my policy”, as Kraemer later recounted. He was wrong. In October 1972 Kissinger managed to reach an initial agreement with Le Duc Tho, the head of the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris. The U.S. allowed North Vietnamese troops to stay in the south “to end the war before the November elections” (Kissinger). But negotiations stalled once again in December that year. The ambitious Kissinger shared the fears of his predecessor Walt Rostow that he would be kicked out of the White House if his years of talks broke down after all. “In mid-December the Nixon administration was about to unleash the awful bombing of Hanoi, a move Kissinger urged”, the Washington Post article reported. “Now you and Le Duc Tho can bargain realistically”, Kraemer told him. In these months of maximum stress “Kraemer became disturbed with Kissinger’s ambivalence, his telling one person what he wanted to hear and another just the opposite. With what he sensed was Kissinger on a giant ego trip with Kraemer disillusioned with the man he nourished intellectually.” On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed.
Kissinger won the unbearable war of nerves, secured his prestigious position and in 1973—for drawing the line under America’s involvement in Vietnam, done with brilliant diplomacy though it was fundamentally on very shaky ground—he and his opponent and enemy in war, Le Duc Tho, even won the Nobel Peace Prize. This, together with the feat of rapprochement with China and Nixon’s historic visit to Mao, and the SALT negotiations on nuclear arms control (his specialty since Harvard), meant Kissinger had positioned himself perfectly as the shaper of American foreign policy—but en route to the glorious heights he had irretrievably lost his mentor. The agreement with the Communists on Vietnam and the concomitant Nobel Peace Prize formed a double edged sword, the Olympus of foreign policy and the pact with the devil that would predictably sacrifice thousands of faithful allies to the USA in South Vietnam. The key issue here was morality versus kudos. “He should have refused it” according to his mentor—like Le Duc Tho, who declined the prize on the grounds that his country was still “not at peace”. The clear, hard Communist who stuck to his principles knew that the agreement was not worth the paper it was written on, a face-saving sham without any solid basis in reality, so he showed utmost consistency in turning it down. Kissinger however could not resist the temptation of his policy being elevated to a high status, revealing the human weakness lacking in his opponent. The pinnacle of all the accolades, then, became the low point of his moral integrity as a statesman.
After the American withdrawal March 1973, Le Duc Tho joined the brilliant General Giap in leading the attack on South Vietnam, breaking the pledge he made at the Paris agreements. President Ford did not intervene, not even with air strikes. In 1975 America’s long-term ally was overwhelmed, occupied by the North, and united with the Communist North in 1976. Fritz Kraemer was so mournful that he wore a black ribbon on one arm that day in 1975 . When he met a two-star general of the air force with a cheerful heart and smile on his face in one corridor of the Pentagon he shouted at him: “You should not be so jolly the day our allies perish in Saigon!”. The general stood at attention wondering who that old man was, with his stick and monocle, who dared to rebuke him.
The South, allied with the Americans, became a prison of communism and it took thirty years for it to recover from one of the bloodiest wars since the end of World War II and Hanoi’s reign of terror. America had lost 58,000 troops, the war, and the halo of invincibility from two world wars, as well as much of its honor and credibility as an ally.
The domino effect of Communist conquests, feared by many including Kraemer, was limited to Cambodia and Laos, unable to stretch even as far as Thailand. The impact of provocative weakness was restricted to the region, for the further reason that the North Vietnamese victors’ strength was sapped and Hanoi’s aims had been achieved. The armies, depleted after decades of war, and the politicians of the North were fully occupied with digesting their South Vietnamese prey and exerting influence on Cambodia and Laos.
When I asked Fritz Kraemer why America lost in Vietnam, he mentioned two elements from the military perspective which substantially contributed to the American defeat in Vietnam: “It would have been militarily indispensable to permanently block the 100 miles through Laos between South Vietnam and the Thai border, thus cutting off the Ho Chi Minh trail, an elaborate supply
network that smuggled soldiers and weapons from North Vietnam via Laos into the south. Furthermore, the constant rotation of draftees that only spent a few weeks in their units proved fatal. This prevented the development of the ‘esprit de corps’ so crucial to moral courage. A soldier only fights because he belongs to a unit of comrades. The soldier must have a home. The squad is the smallest unit in which he is at home, then the platoon, the company and the battalion. The regiment is already too large, approximately 3000 men. A U.S. division in wartime comprises 15,000 men. After Vietnam we sent young men into pure marching battalions in which no one knew anyone else. When they got to the front they were in a completely new regiment. They knew nobody. Five-man squads were based on the principle: after a year the soldiers are sent back. In his thoughts the leader of a squad was always on his way home: ‘I’m going home and you’ll stay here!’ Four weeks later the second man went home. Esprit-de-corps could never develop. In battle the soldier was alone. In spite of individual heroism, a really powerful fighting force rarely evolved because no team spirit was built up with everyone leaving after a year.”
“Kraemer is an abstract idealist”, Kissinger told Thimmesch. “He leaves little room for options. I listen to him, knowing that if I can only accomplish 20 per cent of what should be done, I am fortunate.”
The split between the hands-on pupil and his mentor was both sad and tragic. Kraemer knew that compromises are inevitable in politics. But he wanted to set an example, as a sign to subsequent politicians that there is a red line between necessary and understandable compromises and unacceptable careerist opportunism that should not be crossed by statesmen. For Kraemer the yardstick of statesmanlike behavior must always be the interests of the state and its allies, and never the status of one individual.